In the small city of Crawfordsville, Indiana, Mayor Todd Barton has traced the local workforce shortage back to a surprising problem: the lack of preschools, day cares, and after-school programs.

In his two terms as mayor, he has been pitching and promoting Crawfordsville, a blue-collar city of about 16,000 people that serves as the economic hub for a rural area some 50 miles west of Indianapolis. He has traveled to Atlanta, Washington, D.C., and Japan to talk about jobs and try to lure investors. He’s looking to improve the city’s housing, transportation, dining options, and other quality-of-life aspects.

But as he hears from local employers that they can’t find workers to fill hundreds of jobs, particularly in skilled positions, Barton said he also hears from residents that they can’t find or afford somewhere for their children to go while parents are working.

The difficulty of finding child care poses a barrier to wooing new businesses and workers, retaining young professionals, and connecting unemployed adults with jobs.

“We know we have a challenge,” Barton said. “The question is, how much can we impact it?”

So expanding quality child-care options has become Barton’s latest economic development project. And he’s leveraging a popular argument for early childhood education: the workforce benefits.

In Indiana, the burgeoning conversation on early learning hasn’t necessarily been driven by the educational value alone. Thanks in part to a critical push from local businesses, it’s also been about how high-quality prekindergarten can create attractive climates for businesses that want to recruit, help families get back to work and school, and foster the next generation of workers.

“As we’re recruiting folks to come to Indianapolis, the expectation of those who we are recruiting is, ‘Hey, we want our kids in a strong learning environment,’” said Michael O’Connor, director of state government affairs at Eli Lilly and Co. Lilly is among the Indiana businesses that invested in Indianapolis’ pre-K program and also advocated for the state-funded pre-K program for low-income families, known as On My Way Pre-K.

Indiana is spending $22 million this year to provide pre-K to about 4,000 4-year-olds from low-income families in 20 counties. But On My Way Pre-K is still in its early stages, and advocates have estimated 27,000 Hoosier children from low-income families, many in more rural areas like Crawfordsville, lack access to pre-K.

The economic angle will likely play a key role as advocates push to continue funding and potentially look to expand On My Way Pre-K in the 2019 legislative session, a budget-setting year.

The workforce argument for early childhood education is not new, nor is it unique to Indiana. But in this economic-minded Midwestern state, it’s been particularly persuasive in building public investment in pre-K, and raising the profile of early learning opportunities in general.

Showcasing the return on investment in pre-K, O’Connor said, was critical in garnering early support from lawmakers skeptical of the academic value for children and whether early gains would last.

“We had to get past this fundamental belief of, ‘you’re asking us to subsidize day care,’” O’Connor said. “And the way in which we wrestled that was this economic argument.”

In addition to tracking outcomes for children, state officials and researchers at Purdue University are also studying the effects of On My Way Pre-K on families. In the most recent update last October, the state found the program is reaching many children who had not previously been in child care. Slightly more than one-third of surveyed families said their children would not have attended preschool if they hadn’t qualified for On My Way Pre-K.

Parents are also required to be working or in school in order for their children to enroll in On My Way Pre-K. The survey reported that with access to pre-K, some parents were able to find new jobs or start school, increase their work or school hours, stay in a current job, search for a new job, or obtain better shifts at work.

With unemployment rates at a low point in Indiana — 3.2 percent in May, under the national unemployment rate of 3.5 percent — it’s becoming tougher, and more critical, to find new workers. That’s bringing additional interest from employers to pre-K, said Jeff Harris, director of public affairs for Early Learning Indiana, a nonprofit that advocates for early childhood education and runs preschool centers.

“People often say it’s a two-generational strategy, but it’s more,” Harris said, explaining that employers could see smaller benefits, too: fewer absences at work, less turnover of workers, more availability for night classes or other development opportunities.

In Crawfordsville, Barton said local employers are interested in the child-care issue, which they have been discussing at monthly economic development meetings. But many of the city’s largest employers have headquarters elsewhere, making it more difficult to address the issue on the ground.

Chalkbeat could not reach local contacts for comment at some of those businesses, including Penguin Random House, a book publishing company; LSC Communications, a printing company; and Pace Dairy, a dairy processing facility for Kroger.

For Barton, a Republican, his first challenge will be to determine the shortage of child care spaces and the demand for them. He said he plans to look to current providers to expand or improve in quality.

Like many of Indiana’s small and rural areas, Crawfordsville and surrounding Montgomery County simply lack child-care capacity for any ages, let alone high-quality options. Only about a dozen child-care providers in the county are registered with the state, with few on the state’s Paths to Quality rating scale and even fewer in the top quality tiers.

“It would be wonderful to have a lot of day care options and be able to review where you want to send your child based on the quality of the programming, but the reality is there just aren’t many day care options available, period,” said Brandy Allen, director of planning and community development in Crawfordsville. In supporting the economic development effort, she has also shared her personal experience of struggling to find child care.

School leaders say they’re willing to help, but are crunched for funding such efforts.

“We all have early childhood programs or preschools,” said Scott Bowling, superintendent of Crawfordsville schools. “But the limitation there, really – the funding is an issue. I hate that it always has to go back to that, but it always does.”

The state provides some funding for preschoolers with disabilities — but otherwise, districts often dip into their state funding for K-12 to support pre-K or afterschool programs. It’s yet to be seen whether lawmakers will choose to expand and increase funding for On My Way Pre-K, which is not available in Montgomery County.

“The investment that we do make in pre-K is worth it, that’s why we put in the effort. But it’s hard to go too far with that without hurting the K-12 side,” Bowling said.

Similarly, districts are tight on funding for improving the quality of their programs, said North Montgomery Schools Superintendent Colleen Moran.

On My Way Pre-K is an incentive to reach higher quality standards, since the state only allows the funding to go to providers at the top levels of its ranking system, called Paths to Quality.

“We haven’t gone a step further because we don’t have to, and there isn’t any more money to make facilities up to that high 3 or Level 4,” Moran said.

Quality poses perhaps a tougher obstacle than quantity. Supporters like Moran, Bowling, and Barton all want to build quality early childhood programs that go beyond training providers in basic health and safety to providing a planned curriculum that supports child development. Some early learning advocates even say that a low-quality program can be worse than no program at all.

But in a place like Crawfordsville, it’s a struggle to make quality part of the discussion.

In the southeast corner of Montgomery County, Fuzzy Bear Ministry Preschool and Daycare in Ladoga has received several grants to expand and improve in quality. The preschool has moved up to a Level 3, the second-highest rank on Paths to Quality, and is now working toward accreditation in the hopes of rising to Level 4.

Preschool director Kim McVay said improving the quality was “the right thing to do” to better serve children and families. She said she sees an increase in professionalism from teachers, who have received more training.

But as much as she touts the quality of the program — it’s one of just two Level 3 providers in the county — McVay said that’s not usually a deciding factor for families.

“It all comes down, 90 percent of the time, to the bottom dollar,” she said. “If we’re charging more than somebody else — nope, they’re going to go somewhere else.”

Her biggest battle, she said, is educating the community on why it’s important to have high-quality early learning.

“Paths to Quality is not understood as well as it would be in some place like Indianapolis where they have it everywhere,” McVay said. “It’s going to take time. You’re not going to change overnight the mindset that you’re starting out with.”